Now firmly established as one of the premier specialist jazz labels, Mack Avenue have issued one of the more intriguing new releases of the autumn with the sixty-seven piece ensemble better known as the Symphony Jazz Orchestra. They are in fact a collective of some of the top session musicians on the west coast and include in their ranks jazz heavyweights such as drummer Pete Erskine, bassist Christian McBride and a pianist new to these ears who excels in Gershwin, Bill Cunliffe. The album is dedicated to the memory of George Duke, sadly departed, and who was the co-musical director of the orchestra between 2004 and 2013. The CD is divided up into three distinctive parts, with an interpretation of the 1924 original version of George Gershwin’s ‘Rhapsody in Blue’, a brief two piece composition by guitarist Lee Ritenour, and opening up proceedings, a two movement (divided in turn into two parts each) of an orchestral work, ‘Dark Wood: Bass Concerto for McBride’, by Duke himself.
Most impressive is the treatment of Gershwin’s masterpiece. In keeping with the original that was premiered by Paul Whiteman and his orchestra back in 1924, this version does differ from the later one that is now normally performed by classical symphony orchestras and this explains why a pared down twenty-six musician band is preferred here. The 1924 version is more of a showcase for the pianist, in this case the excellent Bill Cunliffe, who is in fine form and more intricate piano passage are discernible on first listening. As the piece progresses, however, minus the usual string accompaniment, the brass come more to the fore and this truly evokes the exuberance of daily life in New York with some lovely blues-inflected piano passages from Cunliffe that recall Errol Garner and what a rendition he might have given to the perennial favourite. Furthermore, this earlier version allows piano and clarinet to engage in some stunning call and response interventions. For this treatment alone, the CD is worthy of a place in your collection. Preceding this, are the brief ‘Calm’ and ‘Storm’ movements of ‘Symphonic Captain’s Journey’ by Lee Ritenour. The former is, not surprisingly, the gentler in tone and, in the use of keyboard, hints at Weather Report with the subtle use of strings and Ritenour soloing on guitar. Trio and guitar take over on the jazz-fusion of ‘Storm’ with a funk-tinged undercurrent on bass. This writer would question whether the symphony and quartet blend well together on the second movement.
This leaves the longest piece by George Duke, ‘Dark Wood’, which appears to have been composed specifically with Christian McBride in mind. Fans of the keyboardist should be aware that this is unlike his own interpretations, with dense and intricate passages, and in general this is not at all easy listening on the ear. However, bassist Christian McBride does come into his own on the longer solos and his subtle blues phrasings are a treat. Nonetheless, when pianist John Beasley does finally enter with his own solo passage, this does come as a welcome relief. A mixed package, then, both stylistically and in the degree of success in marrying jazz and classical idioms, but just getting this creative enterprise off the ground was a vast and time-consuming undertaking, requiring fundraising activities throughout 2014 and with donations emanating from no less than fifteen different countries. The title pretty much epitomises the ethos of the Symphony Jazz Orchestra that in 2015 launched the George Duke composition prize for young and upcoming musicians and individual members work throughout Southern California with a ‘Music in the schools’ campaign residency programme.